Wednesday, December 14, 2011


 Today, as I pulled a bag of carrots out of the freezer to use in a pot of soup, I remembered that I never got around to writing about  them.  Late in the fall, one of the last things we harvested from our garden was the carrots.  We were surprised that we filled a laundry basket with all that we pulled up, and that equaled approximately 50 pounds!

Even though seeds are tiny and rather tedious to sow evenly, and the weeds must be hand-picked away from the fragile young plants, and the watering has to be just so--(thorough, but not too much, not to hard, and not dry out in between either)---despite all that---I think the carrots are one of my favorite things that we have grown, because of the good yield that can be grown and the flavor simply cannot be beat.  Next year I hope to figure out what I am doing wrong to cause them to grow sort of short and stubby, rather than long and slender as typically you would picture a carrot to be.  The only real complaint I have about the stunted size is that it makes cleaning/peeling them a little more difficult when you get a whole pile of little nubs, but that just takes some more patience and determination. 

To harvest the carrots, I simply took hold of the green tops with one hand and stuck the trowel into the dirt near the carrot to loosen and ease the root up without breaking it off.  My husband took a more aggressive approach and used a short handled garden fork and loosened and raised the dirt carrots and all as he went along, then went back and picked up the uprooted veggies once he reached the end of his section.  We used a pair of scissors to clip the greens off and tossed the carrots into a laundry basket.

Although we did use a lot of the fresh carrots, we had enough that I needed to put some up for later use.  When I got ready to "process" our mighty carrot haul, I first sorted them into a couple size categories just for ease of cleaning and more even cooking times later on.  In several batches, I brought the carrots in and scrubbed them with a new kitchen sponge and cool water. Each and every carrot had its ends trimmed off, received a good scraping with the vegetable peeler, followed by another good rinse, after which they were sliced. Then they were ready for several preservation options.

Option 1: Blanch & Freeze
Boiling water 2 min, Ice bath. Drain on towel. Single layer on waxed paper lined cookie sheet--flash freeze. Package in freezer zip bags or containers.

Option 2:  Canning
This was my first attempt at canning using a Pressure Canner.  Certain foods such as vegetables are considered low acid foods, and must therefore be pressurized during canning to ensure bacteria is killed and the product will keep well and be safe to eat.   Meats are another category which must be canned with a pressure cooker, however most fruits and items that contain vinegar (like pickles) do not need to be.  There are recommended times and pressure settings for various foods which should be read thoroughly and observed in any case.  In this instance, I borrowed a Pressure Canner from my aunt, and she sent along the booklet of instructions which said for quart jars of carrots I needed to set the pressure regulator to 10 pds, and process them for 25 minutes.  For my first try at it, they turned out alright, but I think I may have allowed the water to boil a little too hard which made some of the liquid inside the jars escape. Nevertheless, 6 of the 7 quarts sealed fine, and we just put that one straight in the refrigerator and used it up within a few days.

 Option 3: Dehydrating
Not wanting to put "all my eggs in one basket" or in fact all my carrot store in one form, I decided to try putting some in my dehydrator.   As you can see in this picture I had some help with that job! Even little hands can do a lot to help!

We filled each of the trays with a single layer of carrot slices, plugged in the dehydrator, and came back about 24 hours later...

I am extremely pleased with the results of our carrot drying experiment.
Once the slices were still slightly leather but near brittle, they were finished and able to be stored in glass jars.   This lightweight, low volume storage option preserves so much flavor and nutrients, and these cute, crinkly-edged, dry carrots will be a good addition to a slow simmering soup recipe.

Definitely looking forward to including carrots in next year's garden plans.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Herb Garden Treasures

One of the gardens I have neglected to tell you about is our Herb Garden, which occupies a raised bed across one end of Veggie Garden 1.  I think this is the 3rd year since I added herbs to the plants we grow, and I have to say it is one of my favorite sections of the garden.  Not only is has it been useful, it is pretty too. And its a good value, considering a very tiny jar of dried herbs/seasonings can cost 4 or 5 dollars or even more when you buy them at the grocery store, and fresh--well how fresh could they be?  But, a whole plant usually costs less than that, and then I can dry enough to fill several pint jars of our favorites out of the garden each year, plus have all the fresh herbs we want to use from spring through late fall.

Herb garden in early spring

Early in the spring, I cleaned out a few weeds, scratched up the soil, mixed in some manure and trimmed the few plants that survived the winter and were ready grow.  Those that came back from the previous year included: chives, sage, thyme, oregano, and lavender.  Others that do not survive our winters are, basil, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, and tarragon.  

I started herbs from seed as well, just to see how they would do and to have lots to share. Most grew pretty well. Here you can see baby dill (below left) and baby thyme (below right).  The basil grew sort of weird, with lumps on the leaves, and had a strange smell, so I ended up purchasing a couple plants after all. 

After initially prepping the soil, trimming the existing plants and adding in the new ones, there was very little to do with this portion of the garden.  The herbs seem to do best when left alone!  So I let them have a bit of water when the sprinklers are on, and let them grow.

When it comes to picking and using the herbs, you can really cut some to use fresh at any time when the plants are big enough, have established roots, and will survive the cutting.  Herbs, like a lot of other plants will actually flourish, and have more growth after a good trimming anyways, so don't be afraid to cut and use pieces of fresh herb often.  

washed Sweet Basil leaves
If you plan to collect a large amount and dry it there are a few tips to consider. Most types of herbs are at peak flavor just before they flower.  Also, I learned that it is best to cut the herbs in the morning, after the dew dries off but before the hot sun affects the oils in the plant and therefore the flavor or fragrance as well. Some info sources I read say do not wash the herbs before drying them (again, something about optimum oil retention)....however, we have very sandy soil and when it rains or the sprinkler is on, the foliage gets spattered with dirt and I just have to wash them! I usually place the herbs in the sink or wash bin, and fill it with cool water, swish them around, shake off excess water and then allow them to air dry on a clean towel before use. I don't really notice any quality difference with doing so.  A final tip I learned as to drying herbs is that leaving pieces larger for storage and then crushing them when ready to use them later on will also preserve more true flavor/fragrance.

There are several options for the actual drying process:
1.  Collect the herbs into small bunches. Tie the stems, and hang the bundles upside down in a dry, dark, airy place until thoroughly dry. This is supposed to be the best way to preserve the most oil in the foliage, giving best flavor and fragrance when dry. I do not really have a place to hang herbs so I do not use this option.

2.  Place stems of herbs in a single layer across a wire cooling rack on a cookie sheet. Place in the oven set to lowest temperature possible, and leave the door ajar to release moisture.  I have done this with all kinds of herbs with success for a few years.  The downsides include: takes a long time, heats up the house, have to keep a close eye on it, and cannot do very much at a time.

3.  Food Dehydrator Option:  This past Christmas I received as a gift something that has been on my wish list for quite a long time--an electric food dehydrator.  It is from Harbor Freight, and is not one of those super duper really expensive ones, but it is sufficient with 5 trays and a lid with vents.  It uses a low powered heating coil in the bottom; heat and moisture from the food rise and escape out of the lid.

I have been using it all summer to dry several harvests of herbs. The first time around with Parsley, for example, I washed, towel dried,  picked the leaves off the stems and piled them onto each of the 5 trays--it took about 5 hours to completely dry with the trays really packed full, but the color stayed beautiful green and the smell and taste seem to be great! The full dehydrator yielded a packed pint jar of dried parsley.   With subsequent batches, I tried to allow more air flow by not filling the trays so full, and the processes was much quicker, reducing the drying time by a couple hours.  Different types of herbs however will take varying amounts of time.  I picked off and only dry the leaves of the parsley, basil and sage, but for herbs like thyme, rosemary and oregano (small leaves) I place whole sprigs on the trays and simply strip the leaves off the stem after drying.
sprigs of Thyme in the dehydrator

Oh, almost forgot, I do the chives by the oven method because I like to snip them with scissors and dry in little bits which would fall through the trays of the dehydrator.

Once the herbs are thoroughly dry, they may be stored in an air tight container. I use pint-sized canning jars, and add cute homemade labels too.

Such an easy, fun, and money saving section of our landscape!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More Tomatoes--Processing the Harvest

This picture shows one of several large piles of tomatoes harvested from our garden over the past month.   I should have kept record of how many pounds or pecks or something but really just lost track as I was so focused on keeping up with picking the ripe ones, and then processing them.  Although its a little overdue to be helpful to you this year, I thought I might write a few things about what to do with all those tomatoes, from blanching to canning and more.

After removing the stems and washing the tomatoes in cool water (I even rub them lightly with a clean kitchen sponge to get all the stuck on soil off), the tomatoes should be blanched.  If you remember from any of my past posts, blanching is very important in halting the enzyme process and therefore preserving some of the quality in texture and  flavor of the item.

In the case of tomatoes, blanching serves another helpful job as well--it makes removing the skins super easy!   First bring of pot of water to a good rolling boil, and then using tongs carefully drop 3 or 4 tomatoes at a time into the water.  I found that it usually only takes about 30 seconds and you will want to check your tomatoes.

Gently pick up a tomato with the tongs, and see if the skin has split as shown in the picture on the left. If they haven't split on their own in the pot by this time, take a fork and just prick the skin slightly. The tomato skin should split wide with little effort, (if they do not then return to the water for a little longer.)  Once the skin is split then simply set the tomato aside and continue on until all your tomatoes have been blanched and cooled enough so they can be handled.

Now, the skin of the tomato will simply slip right off as shown in this picture.  The tomatoes will be perfectly bare and ready for further processing-- which can take several different paths at this point.

One thing that I did with my skinless tomatoes was to remove the seeds (most of them as possible in a quick manner) and can the tomatoes.  Using a paring knife I made a couple of cuts in the sections and flipped the seeds out with my thumb. After de-seeding, I canned the crushed tomatoes in quart jars.  (Remember tips for successful canning: sterilize jars, fill with tomatoes, set hot lid and ring upon clean jar rim, process full quarts in water bath canner 45 minutes, check seal after jars are completely cool.)

Sometimes you will find this scene when you remove the lid from your canner full of jars--Nothing in particular was done differently, it just happens. Once in a while a jar just breaks! It is very disheartening though, and you must clean the canner to dispose of all glass fragments and tomato pulp that is floating around.
This year I canned 19 quarts of crushed tomatoes which we will use for various recipes like a nice hot pot of chili on a cold winters day!

straining tomato juice

tomato juice cubes
There was quite a lot of juice left in the container after I picked the tomato flesh out to put in the jars for canning. It was very watery and didn't taste that great as it was, however I couldn't justify pouring it down the drain.  I first strained out any seeds that happen to be left in it, then decided to cook it down, concentrating the flavor, then I poured it into extra ice cube trays and froze it.  After the cubes were solid, I transferred them to a plastic freezer bag. Those juice cubes are great when we want just a little red and flavor to add to gravy or soup, etc.

If you don't think you would find crushed tomatoes particularly useful in your kitchen, you could make sauce and can or freeze that instead.

This extraterrestrial-looking contraption is an antique tool I acquired...errr...uh...I mean borrowed (for an extended period of time..hint hint...) from my grandmother.  I didn't know what its actual name is, and I didn't think it would be very good to keep referring to it as the strainer sieve thingy, so I did a little researching.  At first I thought it was a "chinois" (French: shin-wah) which would have been rather a cool term to be able to use, however then I read further and the construction of it is different and therefore the tool I have is called a "China cap" (doesn't sound as glamorous does it?)  The chinois is a finer mesh style, where as this is a single piece of perforated metal (with holes larger than its counterpart) made into a conical sieve, which sits in a set of legs.  It is accompanied by a wooden cone/handle, a sort of pestle, and purpose is like that of a food mill--removing seeds and other coarse material from soft food/liquid.  In this situation, it smashes up the blanched tomatoes skins, seeds, and all.

This is the first time I have used our antique kitchen aid, and I was pleased with the process and outcome.  I simply took the tomatoes that had been blanched as described above, and cut them in half (because I had to be sure no yukky stuff would be inside and accidentally mash a bug or worm into my sauce! Gross!) I filled the sieve with the halves of tomatoes and then used the wooden pestle to go around and around, pressing the tomatoes into the sides of the cone, resulting in liquid and fine pulp flowing through the sieve and into the pan below, while the skins and seeds are kept separate in the cone.  I think the use of this tool really gets the absolute most out of the tomatoes, while keeping tough skin and bitter seeds out of the future pasta sauce!

I poured the juicy product of my straining efforts into heavy stock pots and started cooking it slowly over medium heat--stirring OFTEN!   It literally cooked all day, until it was reduced to almost half and had quite a bit thicker consistency. Oh yes, and it must be stirred often.  You could leave it as plain tomato sauce, however as it is cooking I like to add salt, pepper, garlic powder, and some Italian seasoning.  This gives a great aroma throughout the house as it simmers, and a good flavor that is not too over powering so it can be seasoned more according to use at a later date.

And did I mention--you must stay close and stir the sauce often, paying special attention to the bottom of the pot--oh that's right I did tell you; I just don't want you to forget or go too far away from the stove. I made that mistake with my first batch and all of a sudden I could smell burnt sauce! It had started to stick and scorch in the bottom of the pan, and that made the whole batch taste sort of burnt. ( I canned it anyways and we'll use it, and it will be a reminder never to do that again!!)

Again the normal rules of canning apply--hot jars, hot sauce, hot lids, process 40 min, check seal when completely cool.

 Final product: 25 quarts of homegrown-homemade tomato sauce, plus a few dinners worth that we used right away with out canning! Very satisfying!

So, I am sorry I didn't get that info out soon enough for your use this year, but maybe you will want to give it a try with your own garden tomatoes next year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


After a long summer of watching, weeding, watering, and waiting, tying up and trimming, the tomatoes finally started to ripen...and now they won't stop!!

If you remember WAY back in the spring, I started 5 different varieties of tomato, some with seeds I saved from last year, 1 from a family member, and 1 from a seed catalog, totaling 139 tomato plants for our garden, after giving away a whole bunch.

The grape tomatoes were among those saved from last year, and they have grown superbly and produced literally buckets full of sweet, oblong, grape-sized tomatoes.  These are the best for eating straight out of the garden, perfect for any child-sized helping hands as they are so easy to pick, and have huge yields from each plant so they are definitely going to be a repeat in next years garden plan.


Roma tomatoes are what I usually grow for canning crushed tomatoes and making/canning sauce.  I also started these with last years seeds that I saved from plants I purchased.  This year they grew kind of on the small side, but I like them really well for their ease in skinning and de-seeding.

Amish Paste
I purchased seed for Amish Paste Tomatoes from a catalog.  They are supposed to be great big plants with meaty tomatoes, and they did grow to a pretty good size, however, most have not ripened nicely and have big cracks in the top stem end. In addition, they seem to be more attractive to bugs (probably because of the cracking) and have a lot of seeds.  Overall I am disappointed with this variety, but since it may be the rainy weather affecting its ripening...I have not completely disqualified it yet.  I have saved some seed for now, at least until next year's planning requires a decision.

Family Heirloom
My family heirloom tomatoes have done about the same as the above Amish tomatoes, in that the vines grew very big, had promising-looking big green tomatoes, but then the ripening was less than desirable.  The blossom ends of the fruits have been turning nice red, but the upper half of the tomato (toward the stem) is staying green and hard and cracking.  Again it may be related to weather this year, and since they ARE family heirloom seeds I have set seeds aside and hope for better results next year.   For now I am just cutting off the unripened parts and using the remainder, which has good flavor, in sauce.

Salsa Tomatoes
Now, to talk about my favorite variety, which I simply call my Salsa Tomatoes--Last year my dad started tons of plants and gave me all of the ones he could not fit into his garden (which ended up being most of them--lucky for me, and that was the beginning of our garden expansion!!) One packet of seeds he used was called "cocktail" tomatoes, and those happened to be what I chose to use in my homemade salsa. Perfect choice! I think will make this our own family heirloom veggie starting now!!
Salsa Tomatoes, easy to remove seeds

This variety produces small to medium sized, round, flavorful tomatoes.  For 2 years now they have had very few blemishes, or other issues.  Beside that, the most important qualities for me are that these tomatoes have really firm, thick flesh that holds up great for canning salsa, and they are super easy work with.  The skins peel off of the firm flesh very easily and their seeds are withheld in 2 major cavities and can be removed quickly with a flick of a paring knife and a flip of the thumb.

Needless to say, for the last 3 weeks I have had a refrigerator full of tomatoes. Even when I get a bunch put up in a recipe, then there's a whole lot more to pick and bring inside from the garden!  I have been meaning to sit down and share some of my ideas/tips/mistakes/etc on processing all these tomatoes, but I have been spending all my time DOING that instead of WRITING about it...maybe between filing the next batches of jars I will write some more on that!  Talk to you again soon....

Monday, September 5, 2011


Hi folks, sorry its been quite a long time since you've heard from GetawayGarden.  So many things to update you on. But where to begin!

I think first I should talk a little bit about the Summer Squash because if you had some growing in your garden, then you have probably eating your fill, given tons away, and still have more squash! So, you may need some tips on what to do with it.

My family loves zucchini bread, but baking a bunch of loaves to use up the fresh zucchini takes a lot of time, makes a lot more heat in the kitchen, and the loaves take up a lot of freezer space.  The next best option is to grate the squash now, and freeze it in small bags, and bake with it at a later time.  It's quick and easy and doesn't tie up the kitchen time/space which you probably desperately need now for canning/preserving the rest of your harvest.

Here's what to do:

Wash the zucchini, no need to peel.  Cut it length-wise, and remove the seeds.  Using a box grater to shred the squash as shown in this picture.  Measure out portions, per your recipe, and put into freezer bags.  Put the portions into the freezer, then when you're ready to bake with them, simply allow to defrost at room temperature.  I have even mixed in yellow summer squash with the zucchini before and it works out pretty well.

Note: you might read elsewhere that you should blanch the shredded veggie  before you freeze it, and certainly you may by putting it in a mesh strainer and lowering it into the boiling water, then into an ice bath, and finally draining it very well. However, I skipped this, and have had really great results. This past week I baked zucchini bread cookies with a couple of portions from last year and the squash had kept well for a year--the flesh was nice and light colored and the flecks of peel were a lovely bright green color, and the texture was perfect.

Another option for preserving your bounty of summer squash is to freeze slices or chunks, to be used later in soups, pasta dishes, or stirfry.  Simply wash, and cut the squash into slices, about a half inch thick. Blanch for 3 minutes in boiling water, then cool 5 minutes in ice bath, lay out on towel to air dry, or blot with paper towels. Flash freeze the pieces on waxed paper on a cookie sheet and bag after frozen.  Note: I think the squash is pretty mushy after being frozen but if it is added to a dish such as soup or spaghetti sauce at the last minute, then it is quite edible.

There you have some easy ways to store all that squash you have picked from your garden so it doesn't go to waste.  Your summer squash plants should be just about finished producing now as mine are, but I am sure you have plenty of other crops that still need your attention!   A post on tomatoes coming soon...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wildlife Feature: The Hornworm---They're BACK!

I was really hoping that I would not have to write a post to tell you about this little pest. Because, I really hoped that we wouldn't find any in the garden this year! But, they're back, at least a few...The Hornworm.

Tomato Hornworm droppings
 I was strolling through the second garden one evening, and much to my dismay, found that one of the Salsa tomato plants had been severely munched on. Several branches had be stripped of all leaves, so I had a feeling that I knew what had happened.  A closer look at the plant confirmed my suspicion, when I found these droppings (rather large droppings for a caterpillar type thing I think!)  Then began my search for the disgusting creature.  I think it took close to 15 minutes for me to locate him on my tomato plant.  And for a moment (a short moment--right before I smashed it) I was sort of in awe at this creature, and once again thought of THE AWESOME CREATOR that made it!

click on this photo to see it larger
and check out the decoy eyes
 courtesy of 
When I see things like this Hornworm, I recall a children's radio program, that was on for years on our local Christian Radio station when I was young. I can't think of the program name just now, but the man's name is Bob Devine, and his character was called "Uncle Bob"  Well, the gist of the program was that Uncle Bob hosted interviews with all kinds of various animals, bugs, etc.  discussing all the unique, and marvelous things about each one, and ALWAYS giving the GLORY to God their great Creator!  I can still hear in my mind some of the voices that he did for the animal characters... and imagine this giant green worm in my garden with one of those funny little voices saying something like ...."Well you see God my great Creator, made me just the perfect color to blend in with the stem of the tomato plant. And He made me with all these spots that look like eyes all down the sides of my body too fool predators that might want to eat me...."

OK, OK, so I am not really crazy like you are all thinking right now!

Last year we were infested with them, and the only thing to do was to pick them off the plants and mash them, and hope that you got them all.  You see they are so devastating because this fat boy (or girl?) will ruin an entire tomato plant (leaves and green tomatoes as well) practically over night! They are so gross to find on the plants growing the food YOU are supposed to eat! And killing them gives me the hee-bee-gee-bees equally as much as finding them in the first place!  This year I thought sure I was covered because I broke down and sprayed the entire garden with insecticide twice because I had so much to lose this year!  The insecticide and a lot of prayer may be the reason I have only found a few of these guys in the last couple of days rather than the dozens and dozens of last year.
This one was as nearly as big
 as my index finger
courtesy of

These green worms are the larvae stage of the Hawk Moth or Sphinx Moth, known also as the Hummingbird Moth.  The moths lay eggs on the underside of the leaves and after hatching in about 5 days, the larvae spend 4 weeks chowing down on the host plant, growing to around 4 inches long before going into the soil to pupate.  Tomato Hornworm and Tobacco Hornworm are closely related and often confused, differentiated by slight difference in angle of the white lines and the color of their horn. Tomato Hornworms have 8 white V shaped lines and black horns, while Tobacco Hornworms have 7 diagonal white lines and red horns.  Oh, and the horn is on the back end of the worm.  Both types can be found devouring all varieties of the Solanaceae family including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tobacco.

The best way to save your plants is to search for the worm, pick them off of the plant, and squish them. Alternately, though I have not tried it, is to toss them into a bucket of soapy water to kill them instead.  One tip I learned to help locate the hard to spot worms on the plants, is to spray water on the plant with a spray bottle or hose, which will cause the worm to wriggle. Another tip is that you can supposedly use a blacklight at night to make them glow and stand out from their hiding places (but I have not yet tried this experiement). Also planting Marigold flowers in the area is supposed to diminish the Hornworm population. 

It is suggested that if you find a Hornworm with little white casts all over it, to leave it be, not dispose of it....the white sacs are the parasitic eggs of a Braconid Wasp, and once the eggs hatch the worm will be used as food for the wasps, and die, giving life to a bunch more wasps to help further control even more pests.  It is very hard for me to just leave the worm, eggs and all on my tomato plant though, and last year I tried removing the leaf branch to which the worm was clinging, and moving the whole thing to a different location away from my tomatoes!

As creepy, yet interesting and uniquely designed, as these things are....I still don't want them in my garden...They look like they better belong in an Alice in Wonderland picture book or something instead!

Special thanks to for allowing me to borrow a few pictures from his creature post last summer.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Vegetable Garden Update 4

Veggie garden update:
Still picking cucumbers and beans, as well as banana peppers and jalepenos. The green pepper plants have produced only a few good peppers so far, but are now covered in tiny ones. The zucchini and yellow squash are giving us a few decently sized squash ever few days now. Waiting for tomatoes to ripen is the hardest thing to do! So far I have only picked 6 red grape tomatoes, but there are lots and lots of green ones hanging on all the plant varieties.

  Another veggie that is hard to wait for is the carrot.  Maybe that is just because all you can see are the green tops, so you don't know if it is growing very much down there in the dirt!  As I have confessed to you before, I am not good at I pulled up a carrot today--just one and it was very crowded close to another one and needed to be pulled anyhow really--I just had to see how they are doing.  You see here that this carrot is not very big yet, but it seems to have formed correctly. Good thing there is still plenty of growing time for the rest of the carrot patch before the weather turns and I have to harvest them.

Here is a little acorn squash.

Today, I picked one of the 3 watermelon that I found out in the garden. It flexed some on the outside, and it sounded hollow when I thumped it with my finger, so it seemed that it was ripe and ready to be cut up...but when I cut it in half it looked like this picture on the right.  All white with a few pinkish spots in it.  The flesh was really really soft, like an over ripe melon, and it didn't taste right at all, so into the garbage it went.  Had it not ripened enough? even though the centered seemed so overly soft? I don't know. I will wait a while before picking and serving the other watermelon out there and see if it is any better.

That is all for tonight. I am hoping to get a few more ideas typed out tomorrow or over the coming weekend.